"It's about Bruce. If you're a Bruce fan you'll see something different. And if not, you like it. You'll love it. You might become a [Bruce] fan as a result of the film."
That's author Sarfraz Manzoor talking about Blinded by the Light, which is based on his teenage years. Manzoor and director Gurinder Chadha stopped by CNET to chat about the film, which opened Friday.
Blinded By The Light takes place in 1987 in Luton, England (think Milwaukee or Detroit in the US). Times are financially and politically hard, with many out of work and neo-facism on the rise. In the middle of all this is Javed (played by Viveik Kalra), a 16-year-old who dreams of being a writer despite his very traditional Pakistani family insisting he pursue a more sensible job.
During a moment of despair, a classmate gives Javed two Bruce Springsteen cassettes -- Born In The USA and Darkness on the Edge of Town -- and Javed's outlook transforms instantly. Springsteen's music speaks more about the struggles he and his family face than the traditional Pakistani music his father devotedly listens to.
Blinded by the Light is the latest film from Chadha, who is perhaps best known for her 2002 film Bend It Like Beckham -- yeah, the one with Keira Knightley. Blinded By The Light is as funny as it is authentic. Like Bend It Like Beckham, Chadha mixes humor (there's a lot), hope, social activism and full-on musical numbers into a wonderfully balanced and entertaining film.
Springsteen's songs are expertly woven into the story, sometimes quietly underscoring a scene and other times as full on-musical numbers with singing and dancing. The film is shot through Javed's eyes, allowing the audience to feel as ignited by Springsteen's lyrics and performances as he is.
The Boss' lyrics speak to Javed like writings from a prophet. I found myself deeply connecting to Springsteen's songs for the first time and wondering why I hadn't before.
"We could have used any of the songs," Chadha said. "I wanted to make sure we didn't make a jukebox musical. I sat there with all the lyrics in front of me as I was doing the draft and made sure each lyric would fit Javed's story."
In one scene, the lyrics to Promised Land -- "take a knife and cut this pain from my heart" -- are literally projected larger than life over the top of Javed. I don't know if there will ever be a formal Bruce Springsteen musical or biopic, but Blinded by the Light is perhaps the best manifestation of his music you could hope for in a film. Hearing his songs played over a Dolby sound system is a real damn treat. Experiencing his music through this fresh perspective made me appreciate how much his lyrics resonate with our current politics, culture and economic struggles here in the US and UK.
Most of what we see Javed go through actually happened to Manzoor. In 2008, he wrote about growing up in a Pakistani family and becoming a Bruce fan in Greetings from Bury Park: A Memoir. For years, Chadha and Manzoor had loose plans to turn the book into a film, but it took a major political event to instigate the film actually being made.
"I didn't want to repeat myself after Bend It Like Beckham, and then Brexit happened," Chadha said, while sporting a Bruce Springsteen T-shirt. "I was so upset with all the xenophobia that was going on around us that I said, 'I've got to do something about it.' And that's when I said, 'We've got to make this film next.'"
Blinded By The Light is exuberant and proudly embraces themes of love, ambition and the importance of family. It revels in the world of late-'80s British pop culture and fashions. There are copious amounts of teenage boys sporting a single gold cross earring, jacket with shoulder pads, eyeliner and about a pound of Aquanet hairspray atop perfectly tamed mullets. One of my favorite moments: Javed wearing a plaid shirt with cutoff sleeves and a red bandanna tied around the neck dancing through a crowd of trendy big-haired teens who just stare back in horror.
What did Springsteen think of the film? According to Chadra, after a screening, "He walked over, gave me a kiss and put his arms around me and said, 'Thank you for looking after me so beautifully. Don't change a thing. I love it.'"
For more about Blinded By The Light.
Originally published Aug. 16.